WASHINGTON — What is your impact? It’s a simple question, right? Our impact equals our legacy. The impressions we leave on others is unequivocally our legacy. In an era of time where reaching people is as easy as the clicking of a mouse or the pushing of a button, we tend to forget how easy it is to have an impact on someone, whether positive or negative. Every person you come into contact with is impacted by you and vice versa. Impact can affect you on a macro or micro level. It can influence your day or have long lasting effects that change the rest of your life.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Clavis “Carl” Gilbert, a military intelligence warrant officer for the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Command, is no stranger to impact. Gilbert has had a huge impact on people, but they have also impacted his life. His impact comes from his many years of volunteering and the boundless energy, care and compassion he puts into volunteering. From an early age, Gilbert and his family have been positively impacting their community.
“My mom and dad always taught me, the quickest way to make yourself feel good is to do something for someone else,” Gilbert said about his childhood in Oklahoma City. “I’ve always worked with various community organizations. Usually dealing with displaced veterans and underrepresented communities.”
With his extensive history of volunteer work, it would be no surprise to anyone who has met Gilbert to learn that he was selected as the 2023 Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — or TAPS — Military Mentor of the Year. Even though Gilbert takes every opportunity he can to positively impact the communities he works and lives in, he originally turned down the opportunity to work with TAPS in 2017. It would be another four years before he would join the TAPS team.
TAPS is a national nonprofit organization that provides compassionate care and comprehensive resources to all those grieving the death of a military or veteran loved one. TAPS has been providing a variety of programs to survivors nationally and worldwide since 1994.
In 2017, Staff Sgt. Marvin Marcelle encouraged Gilbert to join TAPS. Marcelle was a military mentor for TAPS at the time and he knew how impactful Gilbert would be as a mentor.
“At the time, I was a single parent and I just couldn’t put anything else on my plate,” Gilbert said. “I knew how important TAPS was to Marcelle, but I just couldn’t do it.”
Over the next few years, Gilbert helped mentor Marcelle on his journey to becoming a counterintelligence warrant officer. Marcelle graduated Warrant Officer Candidate School and shipped off to his first duty station in Germany in 2021. Marcelle was tragically killed in a car accident on May 16, 2021. This tragic and sudden accident turned out to be the catalyst that finally made Gilbert join TAPS.
“I found myself at his funeral in June of 2021 in Alexandria, Virginia,” Gilbert recalled. “I was sitting at his funeral just trying to think of a way to honor him. It was then that I knew I had to join TAPS.”
Gilbert wasted no time and joined TAPS the next month as a way to honor his friend. By the end of his first TAPS event, he realized that he not only came to TAPS as a way to honor Marcelle, but he also came as a survivor. He soon came face-to-face with another impact that would profoundly change his and others lives forever.
According to Gilbert, TAPS would normally fly you in, have you fill out paperwork, provide you training, and walk you through what you can expect as a military mentor. Gilbert was not given the normal onboarding treatment provided to new military mentors only because he was eager to jump right in and honor his friend. He was given an expedited onboarding and thrown into the mix.
“When I volunteered, I was a last-minute fill as a way to honor my buddy,” Gilbert remembered. “I literally showed up at a campsite, got a mentor T-shirt, and they took me to my group. Here I am … I’m in a group with these teenagers who are telling their stories.”
Gilbert thought to himself, “How am I going to make it through this weekend?”
At the end of his first day, Gilbert graciously accepted an invite to meet with the other mentors from the event at one of their cabins. One by one they all reflected on the gravitas of the day’s events. The stories and the loss those kids have suffered weighed heavily on everyone. The impact those kids had on Gilbert was palpable.
“I would say within 20 minutes you had about seven grown men, two of them were Special Forces Soldiers, in the fetal position just bawling,” Gilbert warmly reflected. “That’s the level of vulnerability these kids presented to us. Until you are face-to-face with it, you just never really think about what that loss means to them. We just never realized the impact these kids would have on us. One thing I learned after this was I had a lot of stuff I needed to deal with.”
Twelve-year-old Kaitlin is one of the many children Gilbert has had the honor and privilege to mentor over the years, and she, like many other young survivors, left an indelible mark on Gilbert and his life. Kaitlin lost her father to suicide and Gilbert lost his mother due to health issues. While discussing the semantics of how and why they lost their loved ones, trying to add a binary label to a non-binary concept, Kaitlin made a profound statement that has stuck with Gilbert.
“Carl, it doesn’t matter how they died. It matters that we both lost someone,” Kaitlin told him. In essence, grief is grief. No matter the mode or cause, it happened.
“The perspective she gave me on how I looked at the loss of my mother was crazy,” Gilbert said. “It was so impactful that I had to call my dad and tell him what I just learned. I never realized, until then, how much I and others bottled stuff up. TAPS and these kids really provided me with a safe space to process and understand my grief in a better and healthier way.”
Gilbert is supposed to be the mentor. His job is to be the helper. Gilbert is supposed to be the one the kids can lean on. But what he soon realized was that this truly was a symbiotic relationship. A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark and in Gilbert’s case, they were leaving a mark on him too.
“Still to this day, I have mentors I’ve recruited tell me these have been the most impactful and moving experiences ever,” Gilbert said. “You can never replace the person they lost, but you can just see the impact you have on these kids.”
These young survivors of tragic loss have played an integral part in Gilbert’s development as a person, father and leader. Through TAPS, he’s learned to be a better listener, especially in times of grief, and how to truly be there for people in times of need.
“I wish I would have known about this organization when I was a lower enlisted servicemember,” Gilbert stated. “It’s made me a better father and a much better leader. It’s made me a better listener. It’s made me better at not only dealing with grief, but dealing with people in general. TAPS has reinforced the tactic of meeting people where they are and not trying to pull them where you want them to be.”
As individuals, it can be easy to see and feel the impact people can have on us, but sometimes we can’t always see or comprehend the impact we have on others. The impact that Gilbert has had on TAPS and the people he mentors has been life altering.
Karl Hillway, TAPS military mentor manager, has worked with Gilbert since 2021. Hillway was the driving force behind Gilbert being selected as the 2023 TAPS Military Mentor of the Year.
“Carl is special because his desire to impact everyone and everything around him is infectious,” Hillway said. “I put Gilbert in for the award because of his significant and consistent support he provides to his mentees and fellow mentors. He exemplifies what it means to be a military mentor.”
Your impact equals your legacy and Hillway is just another chapter in the Gilbert legacy. We all get a choice in what kind of impact we have. Gilbert has chosen to sacrifice over 600 hours of his personal time to leave a positive impact on the people of TAPS. That brand of selfless service and impact continually causes people to strive and want to be better.
“He has an infectious positive personality which makes me strive to improve in my own life,” Hillway said. “His encouragement and support provides significant motivation to do better and be better as a person, professionally and personally.”
Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
Gilbert has been creating ripples, some may say waves, within TAPS since 2021. These ripples are especially present amongst the families he has helped along the way.
Fifteen-year-old Jacob Sylvester lost his father in January of 2017. Sylvester described Gilbert as a charismatic big-hearted guy who is always radiating positivity. Gilbert has been in the Sylvester’s lives for two years, and the impact he has had on them has been life changing.
“Carl means a lot to me, in the fact that I have someone that I can share, talk, and be able to open up about various emotions without judgement,” Jacob mentioned about Gilbert. “My mother has had so much on her shoulders that I felt my hardships with my dad’s passing would only add to her stress, so it has meant the world to me having Carl in my life.”
Losing a loved one has a profound ramification that most people can never imagine without first losing someone they love. Some say that the first year is the hardest. But if you ask anyone who has lost a loved one, they will tell you it is a lifelong journey. Grief doesn’t have a timeline, and because of that some days can be harder than others. Father’s Day at the Sylvester house is usually one of the hard days, but now the family has Gilbert.
“One of the most helpful moments for us was Father’s Day 2022,” Jacob’s mother, Ashley, said. “As a widow, one can never begin to explain the unbelievable hardships children who have lost their fathers go through on Father’s Day. It is extremely hard to figure out how to help your child make it through that day each year.”
Ashley considered staying home with her children just to spare them from the pain of seeing other kids with their fathers. She decided to reach out to Gilbert about her dilemma. This was the moment Ashley and her children saw the level of selfless service Gilbert brought to the table.
“Carl just so happened to be visiting his father in the same state as us,” Ashley stated. “He made a special surprise visit to see my kids on Father’s Day. This spoke volumes about how much he cared. My kids both lit up with joy. It was then they realized that their TAPS military mentor was truly invested in their well-being.”
Gilbert continues to be a tremendous mentor to the Sylvester family. He has been there for them through happy moments and moments of grief-fueled anger.
“Honestly, I would have everyone in tears speaking about what his support has meant to us over these past couple years,” Ashley expressed. “As a widow, my everyday steps have and will always be about my kids and our mental strength to continue. It is because of Carl’s support that I can rest assured knowing my kids have someone that understands military life and loss.”
The impact we have on others is usually bigger than we think. We may never see it, but it is there. We may never know how much our presence, kindness and positivity can turn someone’s life around. Karl Hillway, the Sylvester family and the entire TAPS family wanted Gilbert to know just what kind of impact he had on them and the organization.
TAPS named Gilbert as their 2023 Military Mentor of the Year during their annual TAPS Honor Guard Gala on March 22. Gilbert was selected because of the impact he had on the organization and the many people he has mentored in 2022.
“You can tell from the second Carl walks into a room full of TAPS kids that his heart is in this,” said Bonnie Carroll, TAPS president and founder. “He honors the lives of those lost by providing care and a safe space for their children. His heart for our mission inspires us all.”
It’s no secret Gilbert has had an intense and everlasting impact on the people he’s met and worked with in TAPS, but the reverse can be said about Gilbert. He has contributed over 600 hours of his time to TAPS, but Gilbert will be the first to tell you that the strong and amazing families he has worked with has left an impact that will last a lifetime.
The U.S. Army is full of Soldiers, like Gilbert, who are around the world right now, making an impact. They are living the Army values and epitomizing the mantra of ‘be all you can be’ in order to make a difference, even if it is a small one. You can find story after story of service members making a positive impact on their communities. Service members who take the time to help a homeless veteran feel seen, volunteer for an hour to actively engage with elementary school children, donate clothes and food to a women’s shelter and so many more examples. Some of these actions only take but a few minutes, but each of these can have an everlasting impact on a person.
What will be your impact? Is it still a simple question?
If you or someone you know is struggling, the Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans and Service members in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text.
If you need help, dial 988 and Press 1, or you can chat online or via text at 838255.